John Keats 1795-1821
John Keats was son of a livery-stable keeper, orphaned early, briefly engaged as a surgeon and doomed to an early death. He managed to sustain himself with a small stipend from a generous relative allowing him to study medicine. At seventeen, having completed his medical training Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary at Edmonton. At one point he borrowed a volume of verse which contained Spenser’s Faery Queene. It is reported that “He ramped through the scenes of the romance...he would talk of nothing but Spenser; he had whole passages by heart, which he would repeat; and he would dwell with an ecstasy of delight on fine particular phrases, such as ‘the sea-shouldering whale’ thus poetry acquired his soul just as it did that of Burns, Shelley, and Byron. The entire experience Keats, now seventeen, wrote his own In Imitation of Spenser:
After passing the examination at Apothecaries’ Hall he wrote his first sonnet, O Solitude, If I With Thee Might Dwell. It was published in Leigh Hunt’s Examiner May 3, 1816. [note he was yet to be diagnosed of fatal consumption although his mother and brother were both so afflicted. The strength of the disease was not recognized until 1820 and how the disease spreads was yet unidentified.]
Shortly after his 20th birthday Keats made his decision - he would be a poet. His last operation was the opening of a man’s temporal artery, “I did it, with the utmost nicety; but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again”. Poetry was his ceaseless thought; to be a poet his one ambition. At one point he even wrote a passage to describe the kind of home he would like to live in for the purpose of writing poetry:
A friend, Charles Armitage Browne, offered him such a home in Wentworth Place. It was here that he met with success with as an odist. It is now the Keats House Museum. Keats attracted good friends, men and women, who helped him generously in time and money. Helping him in his career was Charles Cowden Clarke. Cowden, himself an aspiring editor, became his consultant, critic, and friend. Keats, now twenty-one, had only minimum knowledge of the Italian classics and no knowledge of the Greeks. At one point he sat up all night reading Chapman’s translations. The following morning he submitted a poem to Cowden with the title On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. It was published in October, 1816 in Leigh Hunt’s Examiner. It is regarded as his finest sonnet.
So what did the young Keats look like? Coleridge described him as “a loose, slack, not well-dressed youth.” Leigh Hunt gave this account “under middle height, his lower limbs being small, in comparison with the upper, to shoulders were very broad for his size; his face was strongly cut, yet delicately mobile expressing an unusual combination of determination with sensibility, its worse feature, being the mouth, which had a projective upper lip, and altogether a savage pugilistic look.” “His head was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkable small in the skull a singularity he had in common with Byron and Shelley, whose hats would not get on...His voice, unlike Shelley’s was deep and grave. His entire expression was that of eager power.”
Now fully established under the umbrella of the “Cockney School” [a challenge to the “Lake School”] comprised of Leigh Hunt, Shelly, Lord Byron and William Hazlitt. He left London and moved to Hampstead. “the neighbourhood, near London, is one in which the lover of natural beauty and the solitary might well delight” and where Leigh Hunt revisited before his death and could point out the exact wooden bench where he and Keats...sat when such and such a poem was recited.
“Keats signalized his accession to this peculiar literary group by publishing, in 1817, a little volume of poems...scarcely touched the attention of the public, though it served to show his power to his immediate friends.”
“As the story goes it was in the spring of 1817 that Shelley and Keats agreed that each of them would undertake an epic, to be written in a space of six months: Shelley produced The Revolt of Islam and Keats produced an allegory, Endymion. Shelley's poem, the longer of the two, was completed by the early autumn, while Keats's occupied him until the winter which opened 1818.”
From a letter written October, 1817, Keats wrote, 'I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfettered scope;' meaning presumably that he wished to finish Endymion according to his own canons of taste and execution, without being hampered by any advice from Shelley.” But when Shelley’s body was recovered a copy of Keats’ Endymion was found in his pocket.
Keats adopted the Wordsworth’s theory of honest prose in opposition to that of Dryden and Pope who painted splendid pictures of unnatural speech and artificial diction clearly described here by Keats:
Keats had yet been tested in public, his only feedback at that time was from the verse published in Hunt’s Examiner and advice from Shelley. John Lockhart referred to as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.” Blackwood’s rudely ordered him “back to the shop, Dr. John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment-boxes.” Keats reacted with these words:
“I have no doubt that if I had written Othello I should have been cheered. I shall go on with patience...I know nothing; I have read nothing; and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions, ‘get learning, get understanding,’ that is but one way for me. The road lies through application, study, and thought, I will pursue it.” Some years later Albert Einstein wrote “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Shelley was not so compliant and reacted to the editor:
“Should you cast your eye on the signature of this letter before you read the contents, you might imagine that they related to a slanderous paper which appeared in your Review some time since.... I am not in the habit of permitting myself to be disturbed by what is said or written of me.... The case is different with the unfortunate subject of this letter, the author of Endymion, to whose feelings and situation I entreat you to allow me to call your attention. I write considerably in the dark; but, if it is Mr. Gifford that I am addressing, I am persuaded that, in an appeal to his humanity and justice, he will acknowledge the fas ab hoste doceri. I am aware that the first duty of a reviewer is towards the public; and I am willing to confess that the Endymion is a poem considerably defective “chaotic and full of ornament”, and that perhaps it deserved as much censure as the pages of your Review record against it. But, not to mention that there is a certain contemptuousness of phraseology, from which it Is difficult for a critic to abstain, in the review of Endymion, I do not think that the writer has given it its due praise. Surely the poem, with all its faults, is a very remarkable production for a man of Keats's age.” Shelly was quite right, the sentence “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” even though the author is unknown origin - it has joined pop literacy.
There was also the political attempt to denigrate and exclude young writers who lacked upper-class education (i.e. Eton, Harrow, Oxbridge) from the old-boys club of Pope and Wordsworth. However in both Endymion and Hyperion Keats establishes himself as a kind of mythopoet. Of course, Keats again shows him immaturity in the use of poetic form. For example both Juvenilia and Endymion have the enjambed form of the decasyllabic couplet, already an anathema to the orthodox critics of the day.
Endymion was five stress verse and in spite of run-on lines, irregularity in the weight of accented syllables (sped; garlanded) it has survived the original criticism because of some beautiful passages such as:
And this Shakespearean-like passage:
The critics gave valid criticisms of Keats’ versification pointing out, for example, in the Elgin Marbles the “weak" in discordant relation with ”sleep.”
“My spirit is too weak;- mortality weights heavily on me like unwilling sleep.”
In To Homer, a penultimate interruption in:
“There is a budding morrow in midnight; There is a triple sight in blindness keen”
Keats, the romantic, tried his hand as an odist with more success producing several enduring and much studied works: Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to a Nightingale, and Ode to Psyche. Swinburne writes “Of these perhaps the two nearest to absolute perfection, to the triumphant achievement and accomplishment of the very utmost beauty possible to human words, may be that of To Autumn and On a Grecian Urn.” And then in blank verse there is the superb Hyperion.
There also was Keats, the elegist* in La Belle Dame sans Merci with “lily on the brow”, “ fading roses on her cheek” in unique long measure, the last line cut down in a monometer “and no birds sing”; Ode on Melancholy “the peerless, eyes like food, of his mistress”; and Autumn, “bosom friend of the maturing sun.”
*Note: “Elegy is the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. It may treat of any subject, but it must treat of no subject for itself; but always and exclusively with reference to the poet himself. As he will feel no regret for the past or desire for the future, so sorrow and love become the principal themes of elegy.” Coleridge, Table Talk
Keats, now in full grip of the dreaded disease, his physician urges him to retire to a warmer climate. So in September, 1820 he set out for Rome with another friend, the painter Joseph Severn. In Rome, under much pain, and refused of opiates, Keats writes that “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am living a posthumous existence.” Of his total 150 poems, the triumphs were written before his departure. Shelley writes of his friend:
Despite obstacles of poverty, disease, lack of education and early dismissal from critics Keats rose in words expressed by the Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Chi Thien:
Keats’ ‘scintillating pearls’ were his odes.
Our first characteristic - love of beauty:
Comments from critics, colleagues and himself:
“If I should die, I have left no immortal works behind me; but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things.” Keats
“With him [Keats] poetry was supreme; it existed not as an instrument of social revolt nor of philosophical doctrine, but for the expression of beauty.” Gayley
“What shall I say of The Eve of St. Agnes? What, indeed, can I say but that it is most exquisite, the most perfect poem in the world. It is all innocence, all purity, all music, all picture, all delight, and all beauty.” R. H. Stoddard
“At the recital of a noble action, or a beautiful thought his eyes would suffuse with tears and his mouth trembled.” Leigh Hunt
“I had, not a dispute, but a disquisition with [Charles] Dilke upon various subjects. Several things dovetailed in my mind and at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean negative capability; that is, when a man is capable of bing in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts...with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes or obliterates every other consideration.” Keats Letters (Is this projection?)
[Charles Wentworth Dilke, 1789-1894, resided with Charles Brown in a are of pair of town houses later known as the Wentworth Place in Hampstead. He joined the Cockney group and was editorr of The Athenaeum and later the Daily News. He shared liberal political views and literary interests of the group. Today Wentworth Place is the home of a museum to John Keats.]
“The ode Eve of St Agnes and To Autumn are beautiful to the very heart; they are not clothed with beauty; they are beauty itself…his soul was in contact with the soul of things, not with their surface beauty.” H. W. Mabie
“There is no descent into his sould of that spirit of beauty, that awful loveliness, before whose presence the poet’s sensations are stilled, and in whose celebration his language is adoration. In the place of this, there is an all absorbing relish and delicate perception of beauty - a kind of feeding on nectared sweets a glow of delight in the abandonment of the soul to soft and delicious images framed by fancy out of rich sensations...” E. P. Whipple
Our Second Characteristic - imagination
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:
“He was constitutionally a poet, one of those minds in whom, to speak generally, Imagination is the sovereign faculty.” Masson
“That the poetry of Keats is full of beauties, that it evinces a most remarkable richness and sensitiveness of imagination…is cheerfully acknowledged by everyone who reads poetry without having his fancy and imagination shut in by prejudice.” E. P. Whipple
“The invention and imagination of Hyperion are of the highest order. Roden Noel
“That the poetry of Keats is full of beauties, that it evinces a most remarkable richness and sensitiveness of imagination... cheerfully acknowledged by everyone who reads poetry without having his fancy and imagination shut in by prejudice.” E. P. Whipple
“The great distinction between him and these divine authors [Johnson, Milton] it that imagintion in them is subordinate to reason and judgment, while, with him [Keats] it is paramount and supreme...The thin and scanty tissue of his story is merely the light framework on which big wreaths are suspended; and while his imaginations go rambling and entangling themselves, everywhere...A great part of the work is written in the strongest and most fantastical manner that can be imagined.” Francis Jeffrey
“‘It is with the imagination that we grasp truth’ [Keats]; in other words the ideal is truth; the emotions, moral aesthetic, an daffectional are concerned in the comprehension of the universe quite as much as the senses and understanding...” John Addington Symonds
“Keats’ concern is with the imagination in a special sense...it is an insight so fine that it sees what is concealed from most men and understands things in their full range and significance and character. The rationale of poetry is that through the imagination it finds something so compelling in intensity that it is at once both beautiful and real. The theory which Keats pouts forward piecemeal...receives its final form in the last lines of the Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Cecil Marice Bowra
Our third characteristic objective, concrete.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:
“He brooded over fine phrases like a lover; and often, when he met a quaint or delicious word in the course of his reading, he would take pains to make it his own by using it in some poem he was writing.” David Masson
“His vision was of concrete images or living creatures, rather than abstractions... If only you take into your conception elements not in themselves beautiful, but capable of being eventually harmonized [metaphorically] with others into a higher ideal of beauty than were at all realizable without them” Roden Noel Essays on Poets
“...Keats whose practice was to reveal the magic lurking in words and phrases, so arranged and combined as to set them reverberating in the depths of our sensibility.” Quale
“Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject.” Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds.
“Keats revealed truth by way of concrete appearances...His forms whether concealing or revealing, are gnomic or idyllic more often than elegiac...induced his effects almost as a scientist assembles his data...”
Our fourth characteristic - sensuousness, romanticism
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:
His most obvious characteristic is the universality of his sensuousness...In virtue of that unusual and universal sensuousness which all most discern in Keats, he would certainly hsve been very memorable among English poets...” Masson
The last poem that Keats wrote was a Shakespearean sonnet Bright Star. The thought behind this work was prompted by the sight of a star while visiting the Lake country. “Refines one’s sensual vision into a cease to be open lidded and steadfast over the wonders of the great power.” In the poem he asks that he be “steadfast...there to live forever or to slip quietly into death.”
“At the foundation of the character of Keats lay an extraordinary keenness of all the bodily sensibilities and the mental sensibilities which depend upon them...the sensation of taste; those of odour, those of touch; those of hearing; and those of sight...The painter Haydon* tells of once seeing him cover his tongue with cayenne pepper, in order, that he might enjoy the delicious sensation of a draught of cold claret after it.” Masson
*Note: Benjamin Haydon was friends with Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, and Keats. Both Keats and Wordsworth wrote sonnets honoring him and Keats named Haydon in more than one work: Addressed to Haydon (1816), To Haydon, and To Haydon with a Sonnet Written on Seeing the Elgin Marbles (1817).
“Talking of pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my mouth a nectarine...” what followed was a detailed description of the nectarine.” Letters
“The sensuous faculties are the first to be developed; and in Keats they were developed to an unusual extent, probably by reason of he large scale of his whole nature; for it must nver be forgotten that his life was an arrested one, that his poetry remains to us a Titanic fragment of that which might have been the unrivalled work of genius of our age, and that the tree small volumes of verse which he left us with the memory of his twenty-five years of life, are but a prelude to the music which never was played.” Frances M. Owen
Our fifth characteristic is intellect.
“Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal chemicals operating on the mass of neutral intellect, but they have not any individuality, any determined character. I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power.” Keats
“Men should bear with each other; there is not the man who may not be cut up, lashed to pieces, on his weakest side. The best of men have but a portion of good in them a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence by which a man is propelled to act and strive and buffet with circumstance. The sure way is, first to know a man’s faults, and then be passive. If, after that, he insensibly draws you towards him, then you have no power to break the link.” Keats
“An extensive knowledge is necessary to thinking people; it takes away the heat and fever, and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the burden of the mystery.” Keats
“Axioms in philosophy are not axioms till they have been proved upon our pulses.” Keats
“I compare human life to a large mansion of many apartments; two of which only I can describe – the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me. The first we step into we call the Thoughtless Chamber; in which we remain as long as we do not think. We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it, but are imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle within us. We no sooner get into the second chamber, which I shall call the Camber of Maiden Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere...this Chamber...becomes gradually darkened...many doors are set open, but all dark...We see not the balance of good and evil; we are in a mist; we feel the ‘burden of mystery’ it is to this point was Wordsworth come, when he wrote Tintern Abbey: it seem that his genius is explorative of those dark passages. Now if we live and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. He is a genius and superior to us in so far as he can, more than we, make discoveries and shed a light on them.” Written by Keats at twenty-three in a letter.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:
“He possessed simply in virtue of his organization, a rich intellectual foundation” Masson
“He went back to Spenser and especially to Shakespeare’s minor poems to find his inspiration: to Greek and medieval life to find his subjects, and established in doing so, that which as been called the ‘literary poetry of England’” Stopford Brook
“When John Keats thumbed the classical dictionary, he was qualifying rather as an able student than as a learned scholar; he would observe myths, legends, and antiquities, and invent these with his own bounty, not least with suggestions if kinesthetic form and tonal quality.” Abbie Findlay Potts
We close with these words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: